A History of North Utica, Illinois

Millions of people have passed through the town of North Utica on their way to Starved Rock State Park. The park’s many canyons and scenic overlooks reward visitors with a wealth of extraordinary vistas, which are all the more impressive given northeastern Illinois’s generally monotonous landscape. “The general effect is one of beauty, almost of grandeur, a sight unlooked for in its impressiveness in a prairie region,” wrote an early observer. Long before it became a state park in 1911, Starved Rock was a destination for people attracted by undisturbed woodlands and the long human history of this site. To some extent, however, the myths surrounding Starved Rock have overshadowed the story of the sleepy-looking village of North Utica, and only a few local residents are aware of the rich history of the community. There has also been confusion about the name of the town: while officially platted as North Utica, the town goes by the name of Utica. Complicating matters even more, an older town of Utica near here went out of existence by 1848. This history will explore the area’s rich Native American legacy, as well as the story of those who have subsequently lived in and around what is now North Utica.

From River Town To Canal Town
Northeastern Illinois during the early 1830s still had relatively few inhabitants, limiting trade. A turning point came in 1832 when the Black Hawk War brought many United States soldiers to Illinois. Despite a deadly cholera epidemic many of the soldiers returned to buy land after the war. Utica’s early residents saw that the land held unfathomable wealth, and with the banishment of the Native American peoples the Federal government put large tracts of land up for sale. Those seeking adventure on the western frontier included people from the states of Virginia, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New York.

Like many other communities in Illinois in the 1830s, Utica had great hopes for future prosperity. Originally situated on the banks of the Illinois River, opposite the present town of North Utica, the name probably derives from the city of Utica, New York, an important stop on the Erie Canal. At most seasons Utica (also known as Science, for reasons unknown today) served as the head of navigation on the Illinois River, and steamboats from St. Louis unloaded goods here, which were then transferred to wagons and brought to Chicago.

One of Utica’s early pioneers, Simon Crosiar, built a store and a warehouse and by 1834 did a lively commission business. He even piloted his own steamboat and served as a pilot on the river. The Crosiar home served as a haven to many early emigrants and travelers. In addition to Crosiar’s store, by 1834 Utica had a grocery store and tavern. In 1835 Daniel F. Hitt established the first ferry across the Illinois River at Utica, and he also inaugurated a stagecoach line from Ottawa that connected to the Chicago to Springfield and Galena to Springfield stages. ( A street in Utica is named for Hitt.) George E. Walker, son of Ottawa’s first white resident, gambled that Utica would be the terminus of the proposed Illinois and Michigan Canal. Along with Crosiar and a number of other investors, they established the town of Utica on the north bank of the Illinois River, just below Starved Rock, in January of 1835. The rough and tumble little place pinned its hopes on the I&M Canal.

Utica’s location on a floodplain proved to be a major drawback, and in 1836 the I&M Canal Commissioners sealed its fate when it decided that LaSalle would be the terminus of the canal, much to the dismay of people in the towns of Utica, Ottawa, and Peru. Canal engineer William Gooding later complained that it would have been much cheaper for the I&M Canal to end at Utica, but the legislation enabling canal construction mandated that the terminus be located on state lands near the Vermilion River.

The founding of Utica had a strong Chicago connection. Along with Walker and Crosiar, others who invested in Utica included John H. and Robert A. Kinzie, members of Chicago’s first family, and Gurdon S. Hubbard. Family patriarch John Kinzie was the subject of Chicago’s first murder investigation, and he and his son John H. Kinzie worked as a fur trader. John H. lost the first election for Mayor of Chicago in 1837, and from 1848-1861 he worked as the collector of I&M Canal tolls at Bridgeport. Gurdon S. Hubbard, called Pa-pa-ma-ta-be, or Swift Walker by the Indians, also had a stake in Utica. Hubbard came to Chicago from Montreal in 1818 as an employee of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. “He wore a buckskin shirt and carried a knife and tomahawk. He let his hair grow long and wore a blanket, Indian fashion,” recorded one historian. With the close of the fur trade he made Chicago his permanent home in 1834, and soon had interests in meatpacking, real estate, insurance and warehouses. In 1836 he gave a rousing speech at the groundbreaking for the I&M Canal, then engaged irate Irishmen.

Sidebar-Like many other Americans living in the eastern section of the United States, Simon Crosiar and his wife Sarah came to Illinois in 1819 in search of land they could call their own. By 1826 they came to what is now LaSalle County. Taking advantage of the abundant water power and timber, Crosiar erected a sawmill and traded with the many Native Americans in the region. One early historian noted that the Crosiars were “were bold, hardy and resolute, and well calculated for frontier life.” Sarah complained only when visitors became drunk, which made men “unreasonable and dangerous.” In 1831 Simon Crosiar and others who would play a role in Utica’s founding were cited for selling liquor in newly formed LaSalle County without a license. Simon’s son Amzi Crosiar stayed in the area and became a prominent farmer.

(Need Crosiar image)

The I&M Canal Comes To Utica
The route of the I&M Canal took it one mile north of the Illinois River, and soon the town of Utica along the banks of the river faded away, as people sought land on higher ground closer to the canal. When construction on the canal began in 1836, thousands of laborers, mostly young Irish and German men, traveled to northeastern Illinois looking for work. Shanty towns sprung up along the line of the canal from Chicago to LaSalle, and the trying conditions that these families faced are graphically illustrated in this description of a shanty town near Utica. “[A] more repulsive scene we had not for a long time beheld. . . The number of persons congregated here were about 200, including men, women, and children, and these were crowded together in 14 or 15 log huts, temporarily erected for their shelter. . . I never saw anything approaching to the scene before us, in dirtiness and disorder…whisky and tobacco seemed the chief delights of the men; and of the women and children, no language could give an adequate idea of their filthy condition, in garments and person.” Pulling no punches, the writer, journalist James Silk Buckingham, stated that the Irish were “not merely ignorant and poor--which might be their misfortune rather than their fault-but they are drunken, dirty, indolent, and riotous, so as to be the objects of dislike and fear to all in whose neighborhood they congregate in large numbers.”

Buckingham, also related the travails of the Canal Board in attempting to limit alcohol use among the canal diggers. “At first the Board made it a stipulation that no person employed by them should use spirits; but they could get no men on this condition. They next allowed them liberty to use it, if purchased by themselves, but abstained from supplying any from the general provision-store. Even this, however, they were at length obliged to abandon, in order to keep their men, the majority of whom stipulated that they should have a certain number of gills of whisky or rum per day, served at the expense of the canal fund, in addition to their dollar a day, and log-huts rent-free!”

Prejudice against the Irish was common during this era, for many reasons. Their Catholicism posed a threat to Protestants, who were experiencing a religious revival of their own. Irish and other immigrants also voted overwhelmingly Democratic, arousing the ire of Whigs. In 1840 Irish canal diggers were accused of casting 5,000 illegal votes for Van Buren in the presidential election. Finally, the Irish brought with them a fondness for alcohol and sectional feuds. The most famous factional violence along the line of the canal occurred in 1838, when old feuds carried over from Ireland erupted. The Far-Downers faced off against the Corkonians, and the two groups fought a series of pitched battles all through canal towns, and armed posses were called out to restore order. On a lighter note related to this incident, in 1838 several Chicagoans submitted a bill for their services in putting down the rebellion, asking the Canal Commissioners to reimburse them for, among other things, $42.50 worth of refreshments.

Sidebar-One of the men called to quell the violent Irish labor strife was Daniel F. Hitt (1810-1899) of Ottawa. Hitt’s father Martin had owned slaves as a Methodist minister in Kentucky, but later freed them and became an abolitionist. Daniel Hitt helped survey the canal route in 1830, and he was elected the first Surveyor in LaSalle County. Over the years, he became intimately familiar with the county, and in 1835 he purchased Starved Rock and its environs from the federal government for $85. Hitt served as an officer in the Civil War with the 53rd Illinois Infantry, leaving the ranks in 1863 as a Colonel. In 1890 he sold his Starved Rock holdings for approximately $21,000, and in 1911 Starved Rock became one of Illinois’s first state parks.

The men digging the canal through Utica faced unique challenges. Sections 186-187 on the canal contained large deposits of limestone, and these proved to be some of the most expensive sections of the canal to construct. The contractors, brothers George W. and William E. Armstrong, were sons of famous pioneer women Elsie Armstrong. Using mainly human and animal power, they supervised the excavation of over 38,000 cubic yards of rock and nearly as much dirt. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of workers died of diseases such as malaria, and dysentery, but the official reports of the I&M Canal Commissioners do not mention any deaths during the twelve year period of canal construction. Many contractors lost money on their canal work. In 1850 William E. Armstrong, weary of pursuing a long-running suit against the Canal Commissioners, committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor at the home of his mother Elsie Armstrong, in Deer Park.

One Irish family involved in the construction of the I&M Canal were the Neary’s. Typical of many of the Irish immigrants who forged new lives in the United States, Matthew Neary came to Illinois in the late 1830s from Kilglass, in County Roscommon. He took out a contract to build Section 114 of the canal, between the Aux Sable Aqueduct and Lock 8. In 1842 he bought 320 acres in what is now Utica, and his brother Patrick bought land the following year. The 1848 canal commissioner report shows that Matthew earned $2, 206.67 for his work on Section 114. He supervised the excavation of 11,526 cubic yards of earth, at 11 cents per cubic yard; 97 cubic yards of rock were excavated, at 45 cents per cubic yard; and 5, 965 cubic yards of embankment were erected, at 15 cents per cubic yard. Matthew also recruited his brother Patrick to construct the bridge substructure on Sections 109 and 114. Brothers Luke and Bartley also worked on the canal, and the Neary wives boarded and cooked for hired hands on the canal. Family papers from the estate of Matthew Neary contains a list of supplies for canal workers, including two bushels of potatoes, two dozen eggs, two chickens, two gallons of whiskey, and a gallon of beer. Descendants of this family still live in LaSalle County.

(Use Neary photo)

By 1842 the I&M Canal through Utica had been completed, but work on the rest of the canal had ceased, as the state of Illinois teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. By 1845 loans had been secured from investors in Illinois, New York, and Europe to complete the canal. Even before it opened, the canal attracted people to the Midwest. As a result land values along the canal and in Chicago skyrocketed, sparking one of the most frenzied periods of real estate speculation ever. Utica owes its very existence to the I&M Canal, as do Lockport, Ottawa, LaSalle, Chicago and other canal towns.

While undertaken by the young state of Illinois, the construction of the canal was part of a larger federal effort to provide better transportation within the United States. Indeed, the I&M Canal provided the final link in an inland waterway system that helped unite the United States, connecting New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans. The canal’s opening in April 1848 brought about tremendous changes in northeastern Illinois and the entire Midwest. First and foremost, it opened the region to development. Before the canal, northern Illinois had no paved roads or railroads. Farmers and others found it difficult to ship goods to market. Without reliable transportation, farmers only grew enough to supply themselves or their local community. During rainy seasons the few trails turned into rivers of mud, and in the summer clouds of dust choked horses and people alike. With the canal open, a journey that in 1818 took fur traders three weeks, now took only 24 hours.

Connected by the canal, Utica became an active trading partner with Chicago and Ottawa, and to a lesser extent with Joliet, LaSalle, Lockport, and Morris. Suddenly people, corn, wheat, stone, and other products poured into Chicago, and finished goods from the East Coast streamed West. Chicago's incredible growth stemmed largely from the I&M Canal. By 1848 Chicago's population hovered around 20,000. This figure is modest by today's standards, but it represented a 500 % increase in just 10 years. Today, Illinois is still a leader in transporting goods and people, but few realize that this era began with the I&M Canal.

Sidebar-The Canal Packet Boat
It is difficult for us to imagine the perils and discomforts of stagecoach travel. Much of the region consisted of wet prairie, and spring rains and snow melts turned rutted roads into impassable quagmires. Just before the canal opened, a reporter took a trip by stage that paralleled the route of the canal, and he noted that the ride “was as uncomfortable as any enemy, if we had one, could desire. We made progress at the rate of less than three miles an hour; the weather was intensely hot; and not a breath of air was stirring; the horses and carriage raised any quantity of dust, which, of course, rose only high enough to fill the carriage.” Another account noted that a long stagecoach ride “left one more dead than alive.”

Thus, when the I&M Canal opened in 1848 the people of northeastern Illinois experienced a transportation revolution. Packet boats filled with passengers made the 96-mile trip between Chicago and LaSalle in 22-26 hours. (The term packet boat derives from the fact that boats often carried the mail, and a packet originally meant a parcel of letters.) The boats traveled 4-6 miles per hour, extremely modest by today’s standards, but the railroads had yet to become a factor in mass transportation. The I&M Canal packet boat allowed travelers the option of taking an all water route from Buffalo to St. Louis providing a mud-free alternative to overland travel. The fastest known packet boat trip took 17 hours and 35 minutes.

A packet boat rider on another canal summed up the charm of packet boat travel. “To the lover of nature, the canal is an ideal method of travel. Rocks and trees, birds and flowers on the shore can be studied leisurely in detail, and every landscape is indelibly photographed on the memory as it slowly vanishes in the distance.” Many preferred the canal over the railroad, as trains collided or broke down at an alarming rate in the 1850s. The canal presented “ no danger of collision, of misplaced switch, of scalding steam, of crushing timbers, or any other dreadful disaster.”

The packet boat era on the I&M Canal lasted a mere five years, but it represents one of the most colorful chapters in the history of the public transportation in Illinois. Taking a trip via packet boat consisted of two very different experiences. Most enjoyed traveling by day in good weather, with some taking in the scenery while others played musical instruments and sang, played cards, or read. But the sleeping arrangements caused consternation for some. “At night. . . through a metamorphosis. . . by the Captain and two of his assistants-[the boat] was converted into a floating dormitory. Great shelves of wood, about six feet long and three-and-a-half feet wide were attached to the walls. These were held up at their outer edges by slender supports of wood or wrought iron and became the beds on which the men passengers were privileged to repose. Each half was equipped with a thin clump of clotted straw [and] contained a flat rectangular bag of blue canvas, the whole commonly being known as a mattress. . . The beds were arranged in tiers, the lowest being within a few inches of the floor and the one immediately above being at a distance of about three feet from the bottommost bunk & the interval of space separated the middle shelf from the upper one. . . It should be said that the night arrangements in the women’s Cabin were substantially identical with those just mentioned.”

One correspondent wrote of his trepidation. “I soon became insensible to the uncomfortable position which I occupied, although, only six inches above my face, a tremendous man threatened every moment to burst through the sacking which supported him; and had the cords given way, I felt I must have been squeezed as flat as a pancake. With so many passengers in so confined a space, no wonder that on the following morning I should awake with a severe headache, the effect of the heated nauseous vapours which surrounded us. Not a window was permitted to be opened: I made various endeavours to break through this rule during the night, but every window within my reach was fastened down. This, however, may be considered but a wise precaution, for the malaria from the surrounding marshy land, and especially from Mud Lake, distant about fifteen miles from Chicago, which we passed within a very short distance, is very dangerous. At early dawn I contrived to slide off my shelf, and effected my ablutions in a bucket on deck, before any of my fellow passengers had taken themselves down.”

The I&M Canal packet boat era coincided with two other significant national developments, the California Gold Rush and a series of cholera epidemics that plagued Illinois and the entire country. The Gold Rush set off an intensive internal migration in the United States, with Chicago as the transfer point for those headed west. One newspaper noted the teams of wagons passing through the city laden with “household goods and ‘household Gods,’ in the shape of wives and children-all going West, seeking new lands and new graves.” Many of these emigrants took the cheaper canal line-boats, which carried both passengers and freight. In the first two years of canal operation, there were 52 line boats, compared with only 5 packets. For example in 1850 the boat John Hollister took buffalo robes, feathers, molasses, and shot, along with four passengers, from LaSalle to Bridgeport.

The aggregate miles traveled by passengers on the I&M Canal in 1849 was 2,538,818, equivalent to 26,446 passengers carried through the entire line, a figure that remained fairly constant during the packet boat era. These numbers may seem small, but remember that in 1848 Chicago’s population was only 20,000. In 1853, the 1st year of direct competition with the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad, aggregate miles traveled on the canal fell to 138,038, the equivalent of 1,438 passengers.

Given the sheer numbers of passengers, it is not surprising that exciting scenes took place on board during these voyages. In October 1851 a U. S. Deputy Marshall tried to arrest a suspected counterfeiter on a canal packet near Lemont. After “a pretty hard struggle,” during which the suspect managed to swallow the key to his satchel, his bag was found to contain $61 in counterfeit coin. There were other perils associated with packet boat travel. On the Erie Canal several people failing to heed the warning of low bridge found themselves knocked senseless, or even killed. Other accidents occurred. While standing at the bow of a packet boat near Channahon, Captain T. S. Morgan, insurance agent for Northwestern Insurance Company, was accidentally shot in the side by a boy holding a rifle. Badly wounded, Morgan died a week later in Chicago.

While the railroad eliminated the packet boat trade on the canal, freight continued to be shipped on the canal, especially corn, coal, limestone, and other bulk goods. The canal kept railroad freight rates in check, and this competition benefited generations of residents.

A LaSalle county historian noted the impact of the packet boat trade. “As the horses drawing them trotted along through the country, it seemed a decided improvement to the settlers over the old ox team, beset by mosquitoes, and moving at a snail’s pace, without mentioning the inconveniences incident to camping in all kinds of places, as well as hunting stray oxen in the morning… The change from the ox team to the packets was as great to the early settlers, as that of the boat to the palace [Pullman railroad] cars has been to later generations.”

Last Train To…Clarksville?
The industrial development of Utica, and northeastern Illinois in general, began with the construction of the I&M Canal. In 1838 two veterans of Canadian canal construction, Hiram Norton and George Steele came to Utica to produce hydraulic, or natural cement. This proved to be the richest source of cement in the entire state, and Norton supplied all of the hydraulic cement used on the I&M Canal. He later moved to Lockport, where he engaged in a variety of businesses and became one of the richest men in Will County.

Norton eventually sold the cement interest to James Clark (1811-1888) of Utica. More than any other individual, Clark epitomized Utica’s development in the nineteenth century, and he dominated many aspects of life for over 40 years. An immigrant from England, Clark came to the United States in 1830, settling in LaSalle County in 1833. He operated a stage line from Peoria to Utica and one from Utica to Chicago, opening up the community to the wider world. In partnership with Samuel Dickinson, Clark contracted to construct portions of sections 183-186 on the I&M Canal, east of Utica. In all, their canal contracts totaled over $35,000. (Dickinson later piloted a steamboat before heading to California during the Gold Rush. Like many others, all he found was an early grave, dying in 1851.)

(Need Clark photo and Cement Co image)

Clark bought large tracts of land from the I&M Canal Commissioners, eventually owning over 2,400 acres. For example, in 1842 he bought 80 acres at $7 an acre, and an additional 18.48 acres for $10 an acre, in section 33 range 2. Clark had great aspirations for Utica, and he built the first hotel in town, near the railroad station. In 1859 Clark annexed land adjacent to Utica, the first of several such additions to the town.

By 1850 Clark’s son John L. had joined his father in commercial endeavors, and the company eventually became known as James Clark and Son. The primary enterprise, the production of hydraulic cement, constantly expanded over the years, and by the 1870s and 1880s Clark produced 75,000-100,000 barrels of cement per year. Hydraulic cement, also called quicklime, decomposes when heated and hardens under water. Huge amounts were used in building the locks on the I&M Canal and in other construction projects. The quarry, south of the canal on the flats, contained stone 1-6 feet from the surface. By 1883 the name had changed to the Utica Hydraulic Cement Company.

Clark had help in putting this new Utica on the map. In 1852 Hiram Higby commissioned county surveyor J. H. Wagner to make an official plat of the village of North Utica, officially ending the existence of “Old Utica.” (Contemporary usage has shortened the name to Utica, and I will use this more familiar name.) Originally from Connecticut, Higby had bought 160 acres of land in Utica from the I&M Canal Commissioners in 1840, an investment that paid off handsomely when the canal opened. Higby served as the first town supervisor until his death in 1864.

The Wider World: The Railroad, James Clark, And The Development of Utica
No community exists in isolation. While we might take this for granted in 2002, the statement also held true 150 years ago. In 1853 the first cars of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad roared through Utica. Even more than the canal, the railroad brought Utica into communication with “the rest of mankind.” Thanks to these arteries of commerce, Utica forged ties to Ottawa, LaSalle, Chicago, Peoria, St. Louis, Rock Island, and farms all over the county. Each I&M Canal town was part of a larger trade network, one that spanned the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal and the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

James Clark took advantage of these opportunities. As early as 1852 he shipped sand to St. Louis. Utica is blessed with an abundance of very pure sand (99% quartz), making it a valuable commodity, especially in the making of glass. (By 1900 nearby Ottawa was one of the leading producers of glass in the United States.) Between 1860 and 1878 Clark also owned a grain elevator that shipped as many as 220,000 bushels of corn and oats a year. His empire included the manufacture of pottery, sewer pipe and drain tile, all made with local clay.

Clark’s influence on Utica is pervasive. He served as the first postmaster, as agent for the Rock Island Railroad, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, and finally represented the area in the State House of Representatives. The main street in town was named for him (later changed to Main Street), as is a creek/natural area. The oldest building in Utica (circa 1849) is the old Clark warehouse and store, now home to the LaSalle County Historical Society.

When James Clark’s wife Charlotte (1809-1877) died, sixty-six year old James remarried within months, to 44 year old Mary J. Cary, the widow of Charles A. Cary. She had two boys from her previous marriage, Norman J. and Charles A. Cary. Some have speculated that John L. didn’t like the idea of his father remarrying so soon after his mother’s death. John L. left the family business in 1879 and later moved to Iowa, returning to Illinois in 1888, the year his father died.

Clark’s mother-in-law and brother-in-law (Norman) continued to run the cement company, but a new method of making cement brought about the end of the dynasty. By 1910 Portland cement had all but eclipsed the production of hydraulic cement. The last of several companies running the Utica cement works declared bankruptcy in 1942, and despite a brief resurgence after World War II, production ended for good in 1947. Limestone is still mined by the Utica Stone Company, but the rock is mainly used for road construction and the making of asphalt.

Sidebar: (Need photo) Clark’s Falls Farm and Alice Fredericks- Clark’s Falls is an Illinois Natural Area Inventory site, owned by the Ottawa Silica Company Foundation and Alice Fredericks. Born in Utica in 1917, Alice and her husband Jonas worked for ten years as tenant farmers here before buying the land in 1960 from Clark and Cary family descendants. Alice has educated countless school groups on the history and natural history of the site, which includes two waterfalls and stands of white pine and white cedar. Clark’s Run, a perennial stream, runs through the property. Alice’s own family emigrated from Sweden between 1866 and 1870, and they ran a boarding house at the Blackball mines.

Utica, 1850-1900: A Lively Place
The village of North Utica officially incorporated in 1867, and the two of the men elected to the first board of trustees were descendants of pioneers, namely John L. Clark, and James M. Higby. By 1877 Utica prospered with a variety of businesses. The vast majority of workers were laborers, either at the cement works or on farms. Most were Irish or German, but growing numbers of Scandinavians began to settle in LaSalle County in the coming decades. Utica had nine merchants, four carpenters, four engineers, two blacksmiths, and two doctors, as well as its own newspaper, the Utica Enterprise. A billiard hall provided entertainment, and an ex-New Yorker ran a hotel. While entertainment options in Utica were limited, people traveled to Ottawa, the county seat, or LaSalle for a taste of city life. One of the chief attractions of the town was an abundant supply of excellent water. In 1874 the Clark family dug two artesian wells, providing water to the entire community.

From the 1850s until around 1900 Utica hummed with activity. Canal boats loaded and unloaded freight such as corn, coal, timber and other goods, and passengers and freight came through town regularly on the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. Farmers from all over LaSalle County (the second largest in Illinois, second only to McLean County), brought corn, oats, barley, and rye to grain elevators and scales for weighing produce lined the banks of the canal. Livery and feed stores, harness makers, dealers in agricultural implements, a planning mill and a telegraph operator give an indication of the activity here. In short, Utica had become a thriving locale, thanks to its rich natural resources, its transportation links, and the leadership provided by James Clark.

The surrounding townships of Deer Park and Waltham, mostly rural in nature, relied on Utica for a variety of services. While coal is not found in quantity in Utica, just a few miles west coal mining prospered in the 1870s. In fact, the first recorded observation of coal in the United States can be traced to the Utica area, on a map prepared by Louis Joliet. The Native Americans also knew of the “rock that burns.” Several coal miners lived in Deer Park, a township that also had a significant livestock operation. Overwhelmingly agricultural, Waltham township contained people originally from Scotland, Canada, and Ireland.

As in all places, the establishment of places of worship helped give permanence to the community. Catholics organized in Utica in 1852, and by 1877 the church had 3,000 members and a building that cost $10,000, which drew the faithful from all over the county. A few years later St. Mary’s was made an independent parish, and the present building dates to 1888. Baptists organized in Utica in the 1870s, and were formally incorporated in 1884. Evidence of the influx of Scandinavians is shown in the organization of a Lutheran Church in 1890. Services were held in Swedish and Norwegian, and the Swedish language continued to be used until 1928.

Sidebar: The Blackball Mines
The so-called Blackball Mines, two miles west of Utica, give new meaning to the term adaptive reuse. From 1837 to 1918 limestone mined here fueled the local cement industry. In 1876 the region around the Utica Cement Co, was described as “a village of workers. . . they mainly work in connection with the largest and most important Cement Mines and Works within the West.” The company had the brand of a black ball on its barrel heads, hence the name. Each barrel weighed 282 pounds, and at times yearly output exceeded 200,000 barrels.

Over the years the abandoned mines have seen a variety of uses. In the 1920s bootleggers found the old mines an ideal spot for making and storing liquor. Later a commercial mushroom farming operation operated here; and as we entered the atomic age, the mines attracted interest as a potential bomb shelter.

The Utica Cement Company sold the Black-Ball brand, and today the abandoned mines are home to an endangered species of bat. The site is run by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as the Pecumsaugan Creek/Blackball Mines Nature Preserve. Colonies of bats were first observed here in the 1950s, including the state and federally endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis). By the 1970s the environmental movement began to pick up steam, and state biologists began to survey the mines. Five species of bats hibernate here. Access to the mines is by permit only from May to September.

Utica In the 20th Century
Utica reached its peak population in 1900, with 1,150 people. The rapid decline of the hydraulic cement industry, from 1900-1910, as well as the decrease in business on the I&M Canal, hit the town hard. In 1877 LaSalle County historian Elmer Baldwin, comparing “Old Utica” with the new, more successful incarnation, had presciently cautioned against premature optimism. “[T]he young town may well anticipate a successful future. But while it exults in its own prosperity it should remember the changes and mutations which attend towns and cities, as well as men, and heave a sigh for the disappointed anticipations which once clustered around its older rival.”

However, the grain elevators and sand and gravel mining helped keep the town alive. The Interurban, operating as the Chicago, Ottawa and Peoria Railway Company, provided another important means of transportation for Utica residents from 1903 to 1934. These electric trains connected many canal towns until they closed during the Great Depression. Like the rest of the United States, Utica’s economy suffered during these grim days. The Utica State Bank, opened in 1914, went under in 1931. Two years later the I&M Canal officially closed.

The successor to the I&M Canal, the Illinois Waterway, opened in 1933, providing a minimum nine foot channel between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The Utica lock and dam took six years to build, representing a massive public works project for the region. Vessels operate day and night, with coal, sand, stone, cement, petroleum products, grain, and sulfur the main products shipped. The Waterway saw particularly heavy use during World War II.

Sand and limestone continued to play a major role in Utica’s economy through the 20th century. The 1952 centennial celebration guide listed three sand companies, and new capital improvements included a Community Hall (1949) and fire station (1951). In 1952 you could visit the Starved Rock chinchilla farm in Utica, and the town still had a blacksmith, as well as a pool hall and barber shop.

Sidebar-Did you know that St. Peter’s sandstone was named for rock exposures along the St. Peter River (now the Minnesota River)? St. Peter is said to be the angel at the gate of heaven.

Sidebar-Outside of Utica few people know the story of Edward Edson Lee, better known to the generation that came of age in the 1920s and 1930s by his pen name, Leo Edwards. One of the most prolific and popular authors of his day, Lee’s is a classic rags to riches to story. Born in 1884, Lee grew up poor and went to work at age 14 to help his mother. While he only lived in North Utica for nine years, Lee’s experiences here helped shape future generations. His family moved to Utica in 1888, and Lee lived there until the age of thirteen. His childhood memories never left him, and he used boyhood surroundings in shaping his plots. “We were just about the poorest people in town. Our first home was a barn rented at four dollars a month, but my mother kept me clean, and I had plenty to eat. In the vacation months I roamed the hills about the town and swam in the canal and the near-by Illinois River. The year round I attended the Methodist Sunday school.” He credited his Utica teacher, Kate Gardner, for encouraging him to write.

Former president Ronald Reagan, raised in Tampico, Illinois, noted that he had a boyhood much like Jerry Todd, one of Lee’s creations. This series, spanning 16 books, is set in fictional Tutter Illinois, but in reality they are based on the author’s experiences in Utica. Jerry and his pals were a sort of Scooby Doo gang of the 1920s, finding mysteries and solving them. Among Lee’s protagonists are a whispering mummy, a waltzing hen and a talking frog. Lee wrote 40 books in all, and he also created other series, including, the Poppy Ott, Trigger Berg, and Tuffy Bean series, the latter starring a dog. At one point “Leo Edwards” received some 10,000 letters a year from his fans.

(Use image of Jerry Todd book)

Sidebar-Panic On The 4th of July-The Utica Bridge Collapse By 1900 the I&M Canal had become more of a recreational ditch than an artery of commerce. In 1871 Chicago had reversed the flow of the Chicago River, sending the city’s sewage down the canal, much to the consternation of people in Utica and elsewhere. Despite this transformation in the canal’s role, children swam in the canal in the summer and skated on it in the winter. Utica, Lockport and other canal towns traditionally held tub races on the canal on the 4th of July. In 1910 a huge throng of men, women and children were gathered on the canal bridge when it broke. Over 200 people were thrown into the canal; two died and scores more were seriously injured. Rose Farmer and Bernard Kelly were killed; George Hanson had a spike penetrate the back of his skull and come out through his eye; a daughter of Dee Bennet had an arm broken; and one of the Neary family suffered face bruises. Only one of the towns three doctors were in town, and he suffered injuries in the collapse. The only physician present suffered injuries in the collapse, and LaSalle sent a contingent of doctors to help the injured. Many people had warned others that the bridge was not safe, but these calls were not heeded. Among the rescuers were Everett Crosiar and Henry Clark, descendants of Utica’s founders.

Early Accounts Of Utica And The Surrounding Region
One of the earliest travel accounts from Illinois dates back to the 1690s, when a nephew of Henri de Tonty marveled at the richness of the land. “The Illinois country is undeniably the most beautiful that is known anywhere between the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and that of the Mississippi. . . Here you ordinarily begin to see the buffalo. As for turkeys, there are quantities of them. There is a game bird that is abundant, which is a good deal like a French pheasant, and which is very good… . . you find virgin forest on both sides [of the river], consisting of tender walnuts, ash, whitewood, Norway maple, cottonwood, a few maples, and grass, taller in places than a man.”

Writing in 1840, Eliza Steele captured the sublime beauty of the landscape in a ride between Ottawa and Peru. “Our road lay beside the bright Illinois, upon prairie or bottom land, which lines each side of the river throughout its whole length. . . The ground was gay with flowers, and as the twilight threw its purple haze over the opposite shore, it became alive with hundreds of brilliant fire flies, larger and more luminous than any I had ever seen.”

An English traveler, James Silk Buckingham, noted that around 1840 Utica had but three houses. He also described the prairie, which elicited sensations of both pleasure and awe “As far as the eye could reach, in every direction, there was neither tree, nor shrub, nor house, nor shed visible; so that we were rolling on as it were on the bosom of a new Atlantic. . . a pleasurable excitement was produced by the feeling that there was more of danger here than in wooded and peopled tracts, as, if attacked by man or beast, there was no shelter, and no safety in pursuit.”

Sidebar-Natural History
There is some debate over exactly when Native Americans came to North America, but we do know that they lived at the same time as several Ice Age mammals, including now extinct mammoths, mastodons, and 300 pound giant beavers. The bones of these animals are still found periodically throughout the region. Other animals that are unfamiliar to us today survived into historic times. In 1680 the French explorer La Salle visited the Illinois River valley and recorded a few of the animals he saw. “The buffalo are becoming scarce here since the Illinois are at war with their neighbors; both kill and hunt them continually.” An 1877 account of LaSalle County noted that buffalo bones were commonly found in 1800. Bison, as buffalo are more correctly called, nearly became extinct by 1900 before a few individuals, including Theodore Roosevelt, saved a handful of the animals.

An 1877 writer also lamented that another large mammal, the deer, had been virtually wiped out by about 1860, with the last known animal killed in 1866. Deer were a common item on local dinner tables: in 1870 Chicago markets sold over 100,000 pounds of venison, at ten cents a pound. Young deer were sometimes kept as pets, but adults were shot as pests, due to their penchant for eating young fruit trees and corn. Deer skins were also used to make mittens, gloves, and coats. Of course, the deer are back, and the absence of predators has led to an overpopulation in some areas. Other mammal species that have disappeared from northeastern Illinois in the last 350 years, include the black bear, wolves, bobcats, cougar, and elk.

LaSalle also mentioned seeing huge numbers of green parakeets found along the Illinois River. This species, the Carolina Parakeet, was the only member of the parrot family found in North America. These brilliantly colored birds feasted on fruit seeds and grain, and as a result the species was hunted to extinction by 1918.

Even more sobering is the story of the passenger pigeon. Once one of the most numerous birds in the world, huge flocks of these birds darkened the sky at noon on their annual migrations. Many people considered the young birds a delicacy, while others shot them and fed them to hogs. Some killed huge numbers just for sport. These birds, whose population was once estimated in the billions, became extinct by 1914.

Prairie chickens almost went the way of the passenger pigeon, as one early naturalist related. “[W]hen the country became thickly populated, the breaking up of their breeding places, the havoc made by guns in summer, and traps in winter, and worst of all the destruction of eggs by burning the prairie late in spring, has caused their numbers. . . rapidly to decrease; and it is to be feared that they will soon become. . .rare.”

The wealth of wildlife in this area is illustrated by a popular game from the 1830s. One visitor in January 1834 recounted a trip from Chicago to Ottawa via stagecoach. He and his companions engaged in a game of “prairie loo,” in which people bet on the number of wild animals seen from the carriage, a wolf or deer counting ten, a grouse [prairie chicken] one. The winner was the first to reach 100. A later account notes a canal boat captain shooting a buck deer from the deck of the slow-moving boat, and other packet boat riders shot at snakes sunning themselves on the rocks.

It is important to remember that LaSalle County today is still home to many threatened and endangered Illinois species, including the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), the bobcat (Lynx rufus), and the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis).

Native Americans
Illinois’s true history begins, not in 1818, but some 12,000 years earlier. People have lived in what is now the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor for at least that long. Although little is known about the first Native Americans who lived here, we do know that by at least 2,000 years ago they had developed elaborate civilizations. A variety of tribes, including the Illinois, Miami, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Chippewa, and Kickapoo have lived here. By 1700 the rapid spread of European emigrants seriously jeopardized Indian cultures. Tribes forced from their homelands in the eastern part of the U.S. encroached on the territories of Midwestern tribes, resulting in wars and the disruption of tribal traditions. The Black Hawk War of 1832 ended in defeat for a mixed band of Native Americans, and the tribes were forced to sign the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, giving up all of their land in Illinois in exchange for lands west of the Mississippi River.

Descendants of the tribes that once inhabited northern Illinois still can be found in Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Indiana. Today, over 20,000 Native Americans live in Chicago alone, but most are not related to the tribes that once held sway here. Like much of Illinois, Utica and the Illinois River Valley once contained thousands of Native American burial mounds, but most have been destroyed.

Relatively little is known about the Illinois Indians. In fact, much of what we know comes from one source, an account by a French fur trader from the 1680s and 90’s. The Illinois were actually a loose band of closely related tribes or sub-tribes, 12 in all, including the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Tamaroa. They lived mainly along large rivers, especially along the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers. The Illinois combined agriculture with hunting, fishing, and gathering. Women were responsible for agriculture, and they grew maize, squash, beans and watermelons. Men hunted buffalo, deer, bears, and turkeys.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the story of Starved Rock-how an Illinois brave killed Chief Pontiac in 1769, setting in motion a war that exterminated the last of the Illinois atop Starved Rock. It’s a great tale-but there is little evidence that it actually happened. Contemporary accounts do not mention such an event, and some have called it an outright myth. We do know that the Illinois were in constant warfare with Wisconsin tribes, and that they grew dependent on the French. Demoralized by liquor and poverty, it is more likely that the Illinois suffered a long, slow decline rather than a catastrophic ending. In either case, the fate of the Illinois is one of the saddest chapters in the history of North America.

The Grand Village of the Illinois, called Kaskaskia by the French, stood opposite Starved Rock. Serving as a semi-permanent summer village, the population fluctuated dramatically, from a few hundred to perhaps as many 10,000 people. Many different tribes gathered here, especially in the summer, but a depletion of firewood led to the abandonment of the site in the early 1690s.

(use Illinois Indian and or Grand Village photo)

The extent to which Native Americans shaped the landscape in and around their settlements has never been fully credited. Hunters traditionally burned the prairie in the fall to facilitate hunting, and women cultivated the land. Early visitors to the area reinforce the notion that parts of the prairie were indeed fashioned by the hand of man. One-time Massachusetts governor John Davis recorded these impressions in an 1843 visit to the I&M Canal region: “As the eye wanders of these vast uninhabited and uncultivated regions one cannot divest himself of the impression, that it is a country which has been cultivated, and abandoned for it resembles in all respects, what we call old field pastures.” Around the same time Eliza Steele, who noted that Native Americans had set fires on the prairie, penned these words about an oak grove on the prairie: “ It presented the appearance of a lawn, or park around some gentleman’s seat. . . While our carriage wound among these clumps, or through the avenues, it was almost impossible to dispel the notion that we were not driving through the domain of some rich proprietor, and we almost expected to draw up before the door of some lordly mansion.”

Utica contains a memorial to Father Jacques Marquette, erected at St.Mary’s Catholic Church in 1951. Although quite ill, Marquette celebrated the first Catholic Mass in Illinois for some 2,000 Native Americans in April 1675 Marquette. He died a few months later in what is now Michigan, but not before establishing the first Christian mission in the Illinois country. Less well known is the story of a Father Ribourde. The eighty-year-old Recollect Father, traveling by canoe near Utica with Henri de Tonty, was killed by Kickapoo Indians in 1680.

Utica Today-History, Nature And Tourism
Utica is home to two Illinois State Parks, Starved Rock and Matthiessen. Over 2,600 and 1,900 acres, respectively, these two parks represent critical habitats for a variety of species. They are also vivid monuments to both glacial and human history. A third state park, Buffalo Rock, is on the Illinois River east of Utica, contains huge sculptures known as the Effigy Tumuli, patterned after Native American subjects. Tourists drawn to these and other attractions have fueled a mini-boom in what is called heritage tourism, and this has increasingly played a role in Utica’s economy. One of Utica’s most popular events is an annual Burgoo festival. Originally conceived in 1969 as a fund-raiser for the LaSalle County Historical, the festival draws thousands of visitors to Utica, traditionally in October of each year.

In addition to tourism, Utica still depends on industry, and some of today’s businesses have old roots. The present Utica Elevator Company dates back to 1912. In 1914 F. S. Dodge began manufacturing silicate of soda here, and in 1928 he sold out to Philadelphia Quartz, which still runs the venture. Sodium silicate is used in laundry detergents, household cleaners, roofing shingles, textiles. In 1965 the plant was expanded to make metasilicates, used in industrial degreasers and in commercial laundry products. The plant also makes Epsom salts, which are used as a soak for body aches and infections, as well as in the production of pulp, textiles, plastic manufacturing and in liquid dish wash and bar soaps. Other companies in and around Utica include the Unimin Corporation’s industrial sand mine, a product used in making glass, and a sand and gravel pit. The Utica Stone Company produces limestone for use in the construction industry.

Utica Township is renowned for its Native American heritage, as epitomized by Starved Rock State Park. Other important Native American archaeological sites here also shed light on the Illinois and other Native tribes. The Grand Village of the Illinois site, also known as Old Kaskaskia, is perhaps second in importance in Illinois only to the Cahokia site. (The Kaskaskia eventually migrated to southern Illinois, where a town and a river still preserve their name.) Other archaeological sites in the Utica area have colorful names, including the Shaky Shelter and Little Beaver sites.

Utica has two, adjoining cemeteries, each with its own caretaker, Catholic and Protestant. Many Civil War veterans are buried here, as are James Clark and his first wife. The Danny Carey Memorial Park in Utica is dedicated to the memory of a Utica native who died in Vietnam in 1969, at the age of 21.

Utica Today-Architecture
Utica Township contains a number of historic buildings, including the Sulfur Springs Hotel. The name derives from the natural springs at the site, which provided drinking water. The springs also drew the sickly, as the waters were said to heal a variety of ailments. Erected around 1849, this elegant hotel once served thousands of visitors along the stage coach route between Chicago and Peoria, leading to another name, the Halfway House, as the building is situated roughly halfway between the two points. One early visitor wrote that, “An abundance of wild game, on the dining table, fish from the river, poker games in which fortunes were exchanged, and a lively bar room kept things interesting on the first floor,” while the ball room on the second floor hosted music and dancing. The extension of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad through LaSalle County in 1853 soon took away much of the hotel’s trade, and for many years it functioned as a farm house. This combination tavern/ hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is currently owned by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The building has also been known as the Spring Valley House.

Utica still has many buildings that speak to past events, including:

*The 1849 Clark warehouse on the I&M Canal, featuring rough-cut sandstone foundation and walls. This structure now houses the LaSalle County Historical Society, which contains many interesting unique objects, including: the carriage that conveyed Abraham Lincoln to the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in Ottawa; rare Civil War uniforms and equipment; and Native American archaeological artifacts from the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia. The Historical Society also owns and operates an 1865 schoolhouse. Originally located near Troy Grove, the building was moved here in 1990.

*The Chicago and Rock Island passenger depot, built circa 1870.

*An 1892 office and grain weigh station, now home to Utica’s village Government.

*The Utica Substation of the Illinois Traction System, built around 1903. Better known as the Interurban, this electric train system provided service between Chicago, Ottawa, and Peoria.

*Bickerman’s, aka the James Clark Commercial Building, SE corner of Mill and Church. Constructed around 1874, it is the only remaining structure from Mill Street’s early development. It once housed an opera house, auditorium, and movie theater.

*Duffy’s Tavern, at the corner of Mill and Canal, dates back to around 1892. A local landmark, the building once housed a saloon, a bank, and a doctor and dentist’s office.

Utica Township Today-By The Numbers
Utica’s population in the 2000 census showed 977 residents, while Utica township had 1638 people. In sharp contrast to its immigrant origins, 98% of township residents were born in the United States, with almost 82% born in Illinois. Of the 29 foreign-born, 11 came from Europe and 8 from Asia. In terms of ancestry, almost 33% boast of German heritage, followed by Irish, English, Italian, and Polish. The majority of jobs are in manufacturing, educational, health, and social services, and in retail trade. The poverty rate is 6.8%. Of those 25 years and over, 88% have a high school diploma, and 15% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Over a quarter of the buildings date from 1939 or earlier.

Utica In the 21st Century

The village of Utica has endured, thanks to the commitment and resolve of the people who have lived, and continue to live, here. One of Edward Edson Lee’s books contains this evocative passage of his boyhood town, one that still describes the village today. “It is one of the smallest towns in LaSalle County. And instead of murdering each other, as is frequently done in the big cities, if one is to believe the newspapers, the people go to church and lodge, and otherwise behave themselves. . . which is all right, of course, and proper, but it’s hard on the man who has to publish the daily newspaper.” It takes vision, patience, and above all, a sense of community for a town to endure and prosper, and this sense of shared community stands as one of Utica’s proudest achievements.